Addiction, History and Historians: Nancy Campbell’s Response

Editor’s Note: This week, Points offers readers a series of responses to David Courtwright’s reflections on history, historians, and addiction.  Today’s first entry comes from Nancy Campbell, a Points Contributing Editor.    

David Courtwright’s prose sparkles with wit and insight. The current stakes in the ongoing conversation between addiction researchers and historians of addiction are high. As a historian of addiction research, I share David’s sense of urgency that we might miss the intellectual opportunities now available.

The scientific communities who make addiction science—the behavioral pharmacologists, geneticists, medicinal chemists, molecular biologists, and neuro-imagers—inhabit what Courtwright calls “the latest dispensation.” I study this space—where addiction science comes alive. Some of my subjects are alive; others are dead. Some are as multi-lingual and hyper-aware as we historians. Others are reductionists. What moves scientists to reduction ranges from compassion, to the complexities of biography and memory, to the burning urges of scientific curiosity, and to widely held notions of what counts as scientific excellence, clinical significance, or objectivity. None are what I would call “mono-lingual” or hypo-aware of the stakes of their science.

Courtwright takes aim at persuading two groups of people to take each other’s insights more seriously. The first group is addiction researchers who have not yet realized the significant contribution that historians can make to the phenomena that they are trying to understand. Now I am familiar with this group, but I prefer to think of them as addiction researchers who have been overtaken by cravings and uncontrollable urges. They are in the grip of scientific fascination—and in that state nothing else is so compelling as the objects and subjects of desire.

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